Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Un-Pitted Pit

I wrote recently about the perfect pour, the flawless concrete septic tank at the Water Canyon campsite in New Mexico. In that story I mentioned that Dad, Roy and I were very pleasantly surprised to discover that the honey pit was not honey-combed. Well, Joyce and I have just finished roaming New Mexico and Colorado, and I can confirm that, when it comes to smooth concrete pours beneath outhouses, the Water Canyon job has almost no competition ... with one exception. The walls of the doodie depository atop the Monarch Pass tramway are like glass.

Don't thank me. I'm a giver.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Just James

Our middle son is "Just James". The story behind that appellation begins prior to his birth.

Joyce and her sister Tina were pregnant at the same time, and naturally in the course of Joyce's and Tina's conversations the question arose, "What are you going to name your baby?" All three of our sons had been potential "Nancy Dianes", but in regard to the other possibility, Joyce informed Tina, "If we have a boy, we'll call him James Martin!" thus employing the maiden names of the child's two grandmothers.

Tina instantly protested, "You can't use 'James', I already spoke to Grandpa James and got permission to name my son James."

Needless to say, Joyce failed to see the compelling force of this argument, especially since our James was due in August and hers in November. Besides until the genders of the babies were established, it wasn't much of an issue. But, as luck would have it, both children were indeed boys. Tina (being unable to expunge the name "James" from our child's birth certificate) dropped her claim that having cousins with shared first names was unworkable; she likewise named her son James.

Oddly enough (just to add an extra dollop of sarcasm to an already dripping narrative, I simply must add) Grandpa James never did get around to reproving us for stealing the name that he had deeded to Tina.

Thereafter, to avoid confusion, whenever we'd gather with Joyce's side of the family we'd add the middle name in addressing our respective Jameses. This compromise seemed to work well for about three years, but it soon became apparent that this accommodation failed to take into account the sensibilities of all parties with a vested interest in the name James. One day our three-year-old middle son defiantly declared through his clenched baby teeth, "I'm not James Martin; I'm just 'James'!"

Being the insensitive lout I am (though, to quote John Cleese, "Oy got bettah" - or was it Eric Idle?), I responded to my most tender-hearted son, "Ohhh! Well, I'm so glad to meet you, Just James. Do people call you 'James the Just'?"

Just James (living up to his dubbing as James the Just) was incensed at the injustice of his own father taunting him. But hampered by the limited debating skills of a three-year-old, he could only counter with, "Nooooo! Not 'Just James' - just 'James'!" I'm now ashamed to admit, I found his reply hilarious ... until I noticed the tear trickling down James's flushed cheek. It only adds to my shame that at that time I didn't feel as ashamed of myself as I should have.

James is now a strapping Army lieutenant and he seems to have survived my less than perfect parenting without excessive psychological harm, but I have to wonder, Do deep wounds inflicted on children always manifest themselves? In confessing my fault, I'd like to take this opportunity to beg James's forgiveness. But therein lies the downside of my having a longstanding reputation for being a sarcastic jerk. I fear James would perceive I was merely once again taunting him, this time with mock remorse.

So all I can say is: I have a lot to answer for when I report for my eternal reward. It would serve me right if, when I mumble to the Lord, "I'm sorry," He replies, "Well, I'm so glad to meet you, 'Sorry' Bob. Do people call you 'Bob the Sorry'?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Voice in the Wilderness

My brother Roy recently sent me this story:

As a young minister in Kentucky, I was asked by a funeral director to hold a grave-side service for a homeless man, who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a new cemetery way back in the country, and this man would be the first to be buried there. I was not familiar with the backwoods area, and I soon became lost. Being a typical man, I did not stop to ask for directions. I finally arrived an hour late.

I saw the backhoe and the open grave, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. The digging crew was eating lunch. I apologized to the workers for my tardiness, and I stepped to the side of the open grave. There I saw the vault lid already in place. I assured the workers I would not hold them up for long, as I told them that this was the proper thing to do.

The workers gathered around the grave and stood silently, as I began to pour out my heart and soul. As I preached about "looking forward to a brighter tomorrow" and "the glory that is to come," the workers began to say "Amen," "Praise the Lord," and "Glory!" The fervor of these men truly inspired me. So, I preached and I preached like I had never preached before, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

I finally closed the lengthy service with a prayer, thanked the men, and walked to my car. As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I heard one of the workers say to another, "I ain't NEVER seen nothin' like that before, and I've been puttin' in septic tanks for thirty years!"

Roy added to the joke: "So now you know about my first funeral."

I suppose Roy can identify with the story now that he's a preacher himself - indeed one who somewhat late in life came to acknowledge his calling as a minister. Prior to Roy's answering that calling (one might even argue "in preparation for answering his calling") he served twenty years in the Air Force as a different kind of messenger, a deliverer of America's warning of sudden destruction from the sky (which - come to think of it - isn't such a different message). In any case, Roy has now laid down Uncle Sam's nuclear arsenal and taken up God's far more potent weapon, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, though God's Word is "alive and powerful", fools are rarely as dazzled by it as they are by a 20-megaton nuke. So I suspect there are times when Roy feels the pain of the fabled preacher who poured out his heart over a septic system. But I'm equally sure the world's complacency comes as no surprise to Roy.

The fact is: This world is a cesspool. And thus (in that sense) every preacher is always pouring out his heart over a septic system. So if Roy's sermons make no splash, my big brother has no reason to be surprised since I know for a fact that it's a lesson God has been teaching Roy since he was in high school.

Well I recall how God was preparing Roy for the possibility that this world would take little note of his work in the Lord's fertile field. In the fall of 1967, our dad's construction company got a contract to build a picnic site in New Mexico (in a section of the Lincoln National Forest known as Water Canyon, located between Socorro and Magdalena). The job involved leveling picnic sites, building natural stone retaining walls, adding rustic trails between sites and constructing lodge-pole framed structures over the picnic tables.

The largest part of the job was a stone restroom that sat uphill from the rest of the site. Now normally, one would place the sanitary facilities downstream of an encampment. But, this was - after all - a government project, so of course neither common sense nor (presumably) the law of gravity applied. The plans called for this massive natural-stone lavatory to rest atop a mound from where (like some back-woods acropolis) it was to preside over its lower, more picnicky outbuildings. Somewhere in the recesses of the design engineer's peanut, the outside chance of ground-water contamination must have risen to the level of conscious thought, so the plans also called for the basement of the latrine to be an eight-foot deep void, cast from one-foot-thick concrete thus assuring that there could be no run-off (but also requiring the park service to occasionally suction out the facility).

Construction in a pristine wilderness area is problematic. Readi-Mix trucks have but two possible sources: El Paso (250 miles to the south) or Albuquerque (200 miles to the north), so getting concrete delivered to the site before it starts to harden involves some careful coordination to make sure that water is added in transit. Since the quality of the hardened concrete depends greatly on the proper proportion of water to aggregate and the timing of the pour after the water is added, the chances of getting a perfect concrete pour under such circumstances are slim at best. So when we removed the forms from the cellar of the outhouse we were expecting to see badly honeycombed concrete. But we consoled ourselves that it really didn't matter. After all, no one would ever look down into this pit and notice what an ugly job it was. But lo, as the forms came off, we stood in awe. There wasn't even the slightest flaw in the concrete's surface. Dad laughed and proposed that we mount a brass plaque in the outhouse, directing future tourists to the quality workmanship that welcomed their effluence.

So as I say, the Lord's lesson for Roy has consistently been: Though your labors for the Lord may make this world a better and cleaner place, the world cares naught about the quality of your workmanship. The world won't just ignore your good work, it will probably take an thoughtless dump on it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chit Chat

I stepped into the bathroom just as Joyce posed a question:

Joyce: Are you my man?

Bob: Yup, but right at the moment I'm your peein' man.

Joyce: No! You're not a Eur-o-pee-an man. You're my all-American man!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Flag Day

Why of all days do we celebrate Flag Day on June 14th? Why not some time in April or October when the weather in Texas is more agreeable?

Of course I know the answer, otherwise I wouldn't be asking the question. June 14th, like November 11th (Veterans Day, a.k.a. Armistice Day), has historical significance. It was on June 14, 1775 that the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution establishing "the American continental army" (comprised initially of 15,000 men from New York and Connecticut) to establish a common defense of all American Colonies from the outrageous actions of the British military in the Massachusetts Colony (the Siege of Boston). So today is the U.S. Army's 233rd birthday.

And well I remember that date. On June 14, 1975 (the Army's 200th birthday) I stood on Cockrell Drill Field at Fort Stewart, GA along with another 2000 men (there were no women in formation). We were gathered for the activation of the First Brigade, 24th Infantry Division. That day was sweltering, as south Georgia tends to be in June. The 24th Infantry suffered more injuries during that hour-long ceremony (all heat-related) than it did from the First Gulf War. Some undersecretary of defense was the main speaker. I remember no words from that ceremony other than the adjutant's most welcome command "Pass in Review". We wheeled right, made two left turns and then (twelve-men abreast) executed "Eyes Right" as we passed the reviewing stand. I, as one of the twelve platoon leaders on the front rank of the Second Battalion of the 34th Infantry Regiment, saw the tips of six left ears and one nose, and the crooks of seven right elbows raised in salute. For an Army that had just watched the Communists overrun Saigon less than two months earlier, we looked good.

Since that day the 24th Infantry (Taro Leaf) Division has seen action in the first Gulf War where it trapped and played the major role in destroying the world's fifth largest army within 100 hours. The 24th has since been redesignated as the 3rd Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) and has once again taken the lead in capturing Baghdad and again destroying Saddam's army. But there I stood as the unit activated, and it was there at Fort Stewart almost three years later that I introduced my bride to the final nine months of my life in the military.

Now, as we once again stand on the brink of Jimmy Carter's inauguration (though this time Jimmy sports a much better tan), I ponder what other military victories will be squandered by our State Department.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Rose that Does Not Die

Earth's mighty kings (avowed to crush the bloody rose)
but pierced their hand on you, O crown of thorn.
Why do the nations rage? Know not your foolish foes
'twas through Sea of Red that you were born?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Our 22-Year-Old Four-Year-Old

Here I sit, nestled in my recliner with my laptop resting on my knees and Sally snuggling up against my left thigh. (Don’t fret -- Sally isn’t a new girlfriend; she’s an old cat.)

Joyce has promised me a haircut today but neither of us is in a hurry. (If it came down to it, I could administer the shearing myself. Those lonely gray strands don’t admit much styling these days -- a few strokes with unguarded clippers should do the trick.) But back to my point, here I sit covered with a light coating of body salts because I haven’t showered since I gave the yard its crewcut. But first comes my crewcut then the shower.

I've done my mowing for the day. It's not my favorite chore, but this morning it was one that rewarded me with a wonderful discovery. (No, I don’t mean the fresh cat poop I stepped in or the dead grackle carcass I had to put in the trash. How much the sweet kitty beside me had to do with those two surprises will forever remain a mystery.) When I say wonderful discovery, I'm not referring to those insect treats hidden in the long grass. I mean, I was strolling past the fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s when I saw this:

Or a closer view:

So it was twenty-two years ago today that I poured a wall to keep our idiot Boxer/Lab mix from gouging out her eyes whenever she'd stick her head under the fence in her futile hopes of escaping. That dog is now long gone, but those little four-year-old's handprints and footprints remain.

Andy, you were such a cute little boy (still are, just not so little anymore). But wow, has it really been that long?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brother Al and Brother Roy

During my high school years Roy and I roomed together. Just before bedtime Roy and I would tune our AM dial to 1570 (the 250,000-Watt station, XERF) where we’d listen to Brother Al, a folksy snake-handler who ministered to his flock from his mailing address in Del Rio, Texas. The orthographic Brother Al painstakingly spelled everything, the better to help the wooly-headed of his flock in placing orders for prayer cloths. Brother Al (that's spelled A-L) cravenly and brazenly guaranteed that each and every prayer cloth had been moistened with his own tears. Although Oral Roberts had been healing and stealing for years, I truly believe that Brother Al (again, spelled A-L) was the premier media evangelist of his day -- well, he was the top of our list.

He’d exhort, harangue and shout God’s great commandment, "SEND MONEY!" As compensation for his far-flung congregation's generosity, Brother Al (spelled A-L) offered entertainment that included radio healing sessions in which one could lay ones infirmities on the radio and feel the healing power of the Spirit (especially if one still had an old vacuum-tube set). Headaches miraculously disappeared, acne faded, arthritis pain subsided, hemorrhoids shrank (without the use of astringent or narcotics) when Brother Al's quavering voice appealed to the Lord for restoration of these broken bodies. Brother Al (spelled A-L) also peddled "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs". I must admit I had never heard (and have never heard since) the banjo used to such effect in praising God.

One night we were listening to musical selections of the Deiner Family when Roy said, "Let's order the album for Aunt Harriet." We immediately sat down and crafted the following letter to Brother Al from Aunt Harriet (our mother's extroverted younger sister). I'm pretty sure we spelled "Al" correctly.

Dear Brother Al,
I am visiting my kin in El Paso and I heered your wonderful program on the radio. Please send me all the Deiner Family music records. I don't dare write a check or my husband will beat me, so my nephew Roy has enclosed his check. Please pray for me. I wish I could send you some more money, but we're little short right now.
God bless you,
Harriet Xxxxx

The next morning we popped the hastily drafted epistle into the mailbox, but never heard anything more.

Well, never is a bit of an overstatement. That is I never heard anything more, but Roy (as a new lieutenant going through B-52 Navigator training at Mather Air Force Base) once took a short trip over to Atherton to visit Aunt Harriet. She was ever so gracious and greeted him with, "Roy, you look tired. Come on in and relax. I have some amazing music I'd like you to hear." Roy (who knew Aunt Harriet to be a woman of eclectic tastes) was expecting to hear one of her interesting new musical discoveries. Instead he was treated to the shockingly nasal voices of the Deiners -- in all their cacophonic, jug-and-harmonica, bluegrass splendor.

Aunt Harriet brooked none of Roy’s bosh about his having heard enough. I believe there were six 33-RPM LPs. At 45-minutes per LP, you do the math.

Monday, June 2, 2008

You Can't Spell "Trip" Without "I-P"

Joyce and I have just returned from a long road trip to Georgia (to attend a nephew’s wedding), thence to Fort Knox, Kentucky (to see James in his natural habitat) and back home to Texas. Today (as we were driving along Interstate 44 in Missouri) we glimpsed a nostalgia-laden sight: the freeway exit sign at mile marker 61.

Long ago, (in March of 1991 to be precise) we were returning from Joyce’s family’s farm in Illinois when (as children tend to do on long road trips) our two younger boys declared the outcome of their too-hasty fluid ingestion.

James declared, "I need to go pee!"

Ben implored, "Me too, reeeeal bad!"

To which I replied, "Boys, we just stopped an hour ago -- can you hold it?"

Joyce (as the tender-hearted one in our unequal harnessing) insisted, "Please just pull off at the next exit."

And as it turned out, that very next opportunity to exit offered a photo op that was just too opportune to resist.

As I pulled to a stop and un-buckled the kids, I instructed the tikes, "Boys, just go pee on that pole over there!"

I grabbed the camera and hence we have this image as the most memorable legacy of that bygone visit to Illinois.

Oddly enough, that very same woman of mine (who years ago had been so insistant on pulling off the highway) today insisted that I keep rolling. Oh well, the re-enactment just wouldn't have been the same without the kids.